HAMMONTON - In the first episode of "Boardwalk Empire," an ill-fated group of bootleggers passes by a wooden sign that reads "Welcome to Hammonton, The Blueberry Capital of the World."
The image, as many locals quickly pointed out, was historically inaccurate. There were few cultivated blueberries in the 1920s, and Hammonton was better known for its peaches at the time.
"They knew that," said Nelson Johnson, the Hammontonian author of the book that inspired the award-winning HBO series, "but they thought it would be a hoot to give a shout-out to me, and it was."
A replica of that sign, autographed by 14 of the show's cast members and production staff, sat in Mary Gillespie's home Thursday, waiting to be auctioned off Tuesday at the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce Wine & Beer Expo.
Johnson donated the prop to serve as a fundraiser for the Hammonton Education Foundation, of which he and his wife were founding members, and all the proceeds from the sale will go to the group.
"It was entirely his idea," said Gillespie, vice president of the foundation. "I can't say enough good things about him. He's very interested in education and does a lot to help us."
Since it formed about eight years ago, the foundation has provided more than $200,000 in grants to the Hammonton Public School District and St. Joseph's Regional School, thanks to donations from locals and fundraisers throughout the year.
The group has provided valuable funding in a down economy that has resulted in state aid cuts. The group has provided money for everything from school libraries to technology labs to establishing a greenhouse and an organic garden at the high school.
"The foundation was born for that reason - to make funds available for teachers to go that extra step that boards of education cannot provide," said Johnson's wife, Johanna, a former teacher and board member in the district.
When Johnson was promoting his two books - "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City" and "The Northside: African Americans and The Creation of Atlantic City" - he held book signings in Hammonton, with proceeds from book sales at those events going to the foundation. He has three more signings scheduled at the end of the year in Hammonton as well.
As a sitting Superior Court judge, Johnson is bound from making and soliciting contributions for the group, but he was able to acquire the sign from HBO after talking to executive producer Terrence Winter about his idea for the sign as a fundraiser.
Winter said the sign actually filmed in the show may be used again next season, but had a replica made with the help of production assistant Cameron Combe and the HBO props department.
It looks slightly different than that seen on television because the sign in the show was made to look aged, an effect not applied to the 2½-by-4½-foot replica because the signatures would not show up as well.
That means the signature of Steve Buscemi, who won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, is clearly visible in the lower right corner.
On the opposite side, there is the relatively legible signature of Kelly Macdonald, who played Thompson's love interest Margaret Schroeder and was nominated for best supporting actress in a TV series at the Golden Globes.
Winter also signed the sign, along with cast members Michael Pitt, Gretchen Mol, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams, Shea Whigham, Aleksa Palladino and others.
Tuesday's expo at Tomasello Winery on the White Horse Pike is an annual event held by the chamber of commerce, showcasing wine and beer from local companies and food and desserts from local merchants.
A 6-by-27-foot vinyl "Boardwalk Empire" banner that hung outside Caesars Atlantic City a week before the show aired will also be raffled off.
As of Thursday, there were a few $50 tickets left for the event.
No one is sure how much the live auction of the "Welcome to Hammonton" sign will raise.
"It's very unique," said John Runfolo, a trustee for the chamber and emcee for the event. "It's definitely gotten some buzz."
Johnson and his wife will be there. Neither could guess how high the bidding will go.
"It'll be fun to watch," he said.
"We're hoping it generates quite a bit of money," she said. "Maybe it's priceless."
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